Florida Bay is a triangularly shaped body of water about 2200 km2 in area. Over 85 percent of the Bay lies within Everglades National Park. Much of the remainder is in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The Bay is bounded by the Florida Everglades on the north and the Florida Keys on the southeast and includes over 200 small islands or "keys", many of which are rimmed with mangroves and have interior irregularly flooded "flats" with calcareous algal mats. While Florida Bay is known as the principal inshore nursery for the offshore Tortugas pink shrimp, it also provides critical habitat for juvenile spiny lobsters, stone crabs, and many important finfish species. Moreover, the Bay supports numerous protected species including the bottle-nosed dolphin, the American crocodile, the West Indian manatee, and several species of sea turtles.
Shallow and often hypersaline, the Bay was until recently characterized by clear waters and lush seagrass meadows covering a mosaic of shallow water banks and numerous relatively deeper water basins. In western Florida Bay, seagrasses have been dying since the summer of 1987. A phenomenon such as this has not been observed previously in Florida Bay nor has a mass mortality of any tropical seagrass been reported in the scientific literature. In some areas vegetative cover has been partially re-established by either the original species or another species, but in other areas recolonization has been slow and large areas of the bottom are still devoid of vegetation.
There are other indications that the environmental health of Florida Bay has deteriorated. Fishing success has declined for many of the commercial and recreational species that depend upon the Bay as a juvenile nursery habitat, suggesting a decline in recruitment. Atypical algal blooms have been reported in the last few years across much of western Florida Bay and have extended into the Florida Keys. These blooms are thought to have attributed to the Loggerhead sponge die-off. This is significant because these sponges are the habitat for juvenile lobster. Most recently, mangroves within the Bay are reported to be in decline. While the causes of the various problems and the relationships between them are not well understood, there is no question that, like the sawgrass habitat of the Everglades, the coastal marine ecosystem of Florida Bay is in jeopardy.
More freshwater alone will not return Florida Bay to its pristine condition. The timing, location, and quality of freshwater released to Florida Bay must also be considered. Water quality is particularly important, and measures to address pollution specific to the Everglades may not be adequate to protect Florida Bay. Increasing freshwater flow to the Bay, all else being equal, could increase nutrient loading which might induce more frequent and more extensive phytoplankton blooms. These could, in turn, result in further losses of bottom vegetation in the Bay from light limitation, and nutrient loads in Bay waters that exit between the Keys could be injurious to the coral reefs of the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary. Lastly, increasing water flow could also increase trace contaminant loading depending on sources and flow pathways.
At present, there is insufficient scientific knowledge to predict with confidence the consequences of anticipated alterations in freshwater input to Florida Bay. Although increased flow can certainly reduce the frequency and severity of hypersalinity, fine-tuning of water flow, reduction in plant nutrient concentrations in in-flowing water, and other corrective measures may also be necessary to restore the health and productivity of the Bay.
Since no one can turn back the clock and South Florida's rapid development will almost certainly continue, a series of compromises and tradeoffs will have to be made in restoring and maintaining a healthy South Florida coastal ecosystem including Florida Bay. It is essential that decisions be made based on reliable scientific information. To generate the requisite information a group of federal and state agencies are collaborating in an interagency Florida Bay Science Program that conducts closely complementary research, monitoring, and modeling projects which together will answer the most critical scientific questions about the Bay ecosystem. This program is guided by a Program Management Committee (PMC) that has recently expanded to assure coordination and collaboration with developing programs at Biscayne Bay, Rookery Bay, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and the Dry Tortugas in so far as they are germane to South Florida ecosystem restoration.
The Bigger Picture...
The Florida Bay and Adjacent Marine Systems Science Program is a scientific component of the much larger South Florida Ecosystem Restoration initiative headed by a Task Force consisting of state and federal agency heads and representatives from other stakeholder groups. Reporting to the Task Force are a group of regional managers (Working Group) of those agencies responsible for managing the environmental resources in South Florida and carrying out the restoration activities. This Working Group has established among other committees a Science Coordination Team (SCT) responsible for defining and developing plans to provide the scientific and information needs of the Working Group. In doing so, South Florida has been divided into a series of subregions, one of which includes Florida Bay. Results of Florida Bay’s science program are communicated to the Working Group and its subgroups through the annual Florida Bay Science Conference, joint membership of some PMC members on the Science Coordination Team, and by direct briefing of agency managers.
Last Updated 11/01/99
by Monika Gurnée
PMC FLBAY Webmaster